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Football and Spirituality

David Cowles

Sep 19, 2023

“How can I give myself up to the sheer artistry of sport when I am so deeply invested in the outcome of every contest?”

It’s not an easy thing to do - watch a game with no attachment to the results! Admire the pageantry, the strategy, the superhuman feats - the dance, both choreographed and improvised – but ignore the outcome. 

Even as small children, we are sucked into affinities. “We root, root, root, for the home team.” For such loyalty, we might conceivably be forgiven, but it never ends there. With every affinity comes a network of antipathies. 

“I root for two teams, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the Yankees.” When it comes to professional football, I root for the Patriots (don’t shoot me!). ‘We’re #1’ means that every other team is less than one. We hate them all, we wish them ill – competitively of course, not personally – but still, not very spiritual, is it?

As soon as we profess affinity for one team in a league, we create antipathy toward every other team in that league. So tonight, the Falcons are playing the Chargers. As a member of Patriot Nation, I hate them both, but do I care who wins? You bet I do!

The Falcons are in the other conference; unless we happen to play them during the regular season - or in the Super Bowl - their ups and downs are irrelevant to us. So the Falcons are rated (– 1). We hate them…but not that much.

Sidebar: Note the frequent appearance of the pronouns ‘we/us’ in the paragraph above. In my mind, Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and I constitute a nexus – a nexus that can be the subject or the object of any sentence, a nexus where two members have never even heard of the third. Could this form the basis of a new Trinitarian theology? “Father, Son, may I introduce you to your biggest fan, the Holy Spirit?” – I don’t think so!  

So much for the Falcons; the Chargers are a different story. They are in our conference and likely to compete with us for a playoff spot. If we both make the playoffs, we are likely to face each other in post-season play. Sorry guys, you get a (– 3). 

So we’re all in on the Falcons tonight. We hate them less than we hate the Chargers, but we hate the Chargers less than we hate the other teams in our division: (– 5) for them! Very spiritual.

Fandom is symmetry breaking. The instant we declare for any NFL team, all 32 teams crystallize into a hierarchy of preferences. Once symmetry is broken, every one of the 496 line segments potentially connecting teams instantly becomes a vector. 

Given any contest between any two teams, we know immediately who our favorite is. But the insanity doesn’t stop there! Some games are more important to us than others. From the perspective of a Pats fan, a game between two mediocre NFC teams is much less important than a game between two of our division rivals.

Theoretically, each of the 496 potential matchups has its own unique ‘importance coefficient’…from the Patriot perspective. The direction of each vector and the relative strength of each coefficient will change when viewed from any of the 31 remaining perspectives. 

No wonder I like football so much! All this is part of what makes competitive sports so engaging, but it wreaks havoc on my spirituality. How can I give myself up to the sheer artistry of sport when I am so deeply invested in the outcome of every contest? 

There is, of course, only one right answer: Abandon the illusion that you are part of any nexus that includes any professional football owners, coaches, or players; focus on the divine virtues (gracefulness, persistency, harmony, etc.) that manifest during each game; detach entirely from the outcome. So, now that you know, can I count on you to put this new wisdom into action next Sunday? 

Of course not! Admit it, you’re addicted, and you can’t quit cold turkey. Would you consider Methadone withdrawal? In my basement, I’ve brewed up some ‘safer drugs’ that still let you admire all the divine virtues without necessarily sacrificing your ‘immortal soul’ in the process:

  • Watch games that don’t interest you. They can’t be NFL games, obviously, but I bet there are some colleges you’ve never heard of, and thanks to ESPN, you can now watch high school football games as well. 

  • Off-season, watch XFL and USFL games.

  • Watch NFL games, but only in ‘repeat’. Perhaps you know the outcome, perhaps you don’t. Either way, your cheering cannot impact the outcome the way it does when you’re watching games IRT. Added advantage: fewer commercials, no time-outs, no half-time nonsense.

  • Or finally, you can move to a different planet… like England. Watch Premier League ‘Football’ instead of the NFL. Of course, being who I am, I’m still tempted to pick a favorite: ‘Manchester United’ because they are such a great brand, ‘Nottingham Forest’ because it evokes a childhood hero, or ‘Crystal Palace’ because how could you not root for a team with a cool name like that?

But there’s a problem - given a choice between English Soccer and American Football, I’d watch my NFL teams every day of the week…and 5 times on Sunday. Yes, I’m addicted to American football; but more than that, I’m addicted to ‘caring’ – and that right there is the problem! 

The very existence of professional sports depends on its ability to induce fans to form attachments – otherwise players would be earning minimum wage – but ‘attachment’ is exactly what my guru says I should avoid. In fact, he wants the Commissioner to change the rules of the game. No more keeping score. Teams will execute plays for the sheer joy of completing them; but would you still spend $300/game and sit in snow to watch such a display?


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